Think self-representation is a good idea? Think again

This article discusses why self-representation is booming in Alberta's family courts and why that's a problem.

For those who are going through a divorce, the decision about whether or not to represent oneself in court can be a difficult one. As Maclean's points out, in recent years the number of self-represented litigants in family courts has boomed. While many people are choosing to represent themselves in court due to concerns about legal costs, others are doing it because of a process called "disintermediation," whereby people assume that they are better equipped to handle complex matters related to their divorce without the need of a trained lawyer. For those thinking that self-representation is a good idea, however, it is important to keep in mind the very serious risks that such an approach entails.

Why self-representation is booming

Both in Alberta and across Canada self-representation is on a major upswing, especially in family law courts. Over half of all litigants in family courts in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario, for example, are without a lawyer representing them. In Alberta alone, according to CBC News, self-represented litigants increased by 121 percent in divorce and family courts between 2006 and 2015.

The reasons for such profound increases are a major concern for legal experts. Undoubtedly, many litigants are representing themselves due to financial concerns. However, others are doing it due to "disintermediation," a term used by economists that essentially refers to people who prefer a do-it-yourself attitude. In other words, many people are assuming they have the research skills and expertise necessary to handle complex legal issues on their own.

Why self-representation is a problem

However, many self-represented litigants quickly discover that a DIY attitude isn't enough when it comes to navigating the complex legal system nor is it a good protection against financial risk. In fact, self-represented litigants expose themselves to increased financial risk by not having the legal knowledge to effectively negotiate financial issues related to a divorce. For example, a self-represented litigant can easily make an error when negotiating splitting a spouse's pension if he or she is unaware of his or her rights when claiming that pension.

Furthermore, instead of feeling empowered, self-representation can leave litigants feeling overwhelmed and helpless. What many people fail to keep in mind when representing themselves in court is that judges are constrained by strict rules concerning what they can and cannot say to litigants. A judge is required to remain neutral during a case and cannot offer legal advice to either litigant. That means that even if a judge sees a litigant making an easily avoidable mistake, he or she can offer little help to that litigant.

Family law help

It's important to not underestimate the value of a lawyer in a family law case. An experienced lawyer will have the training required to help clients protect their best interests. For those who want peace of mind and clear guidance when going through a divorce, talking to a family law lawyer is an important step that has both short and long-term benefits.